Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Roger Williams: An American Baptist to Remember

Back in the 17th century, as Baptists began to emerge in Europe, their beliefs and teachings began to work in the minds of these upstart colonists in America. Roger Williams founded the “first” Baptist church in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1638, part of his personal odyssey of living a contrary-minded faith. When he arrived in America in 1630, Williams was a controversial figure, aggravating the Puritan colonial government to the point that within six years, he was banished from Massachusetts.

To avoid deportment to England where he was equally unwelcome, Williams set off in the dead of winter 1636 for the wilderness....later known as "Rhode Island".

Ironically, the British crown and the Puritan government thought of themselves along the same lines: both forms of government thought they alone knew what God had ordained for the order of things. To both, Williams would speak out against theocratic rule, embracing that religion is a matter of conscience and church and state kept separate. What we take for granted today came only because persons like Roger Williams argued for it and suffered consequences.

 Recently, I came across a quote taken from Williams’ writings about his banishment from the Bay Colony. Williams set his reflections to verse:

God makes a Path, provides a Guide,

And feeds in Wilderness!

His glorious name while breath remaines, O that I may confesse.

Lost many a time, I have had no Guide, No House, but Hollow Tree!

In stormy Winter night no Fire, no Food, no Company:

In him I have found a House, a Bed,

A Table, a Company:

No Cup so bitter, but’s made sweet. When God shall Sweet’ning be.

(Edwin Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, Eerdmans, 1991; current edition, Judson, 1999).

In the midst of tangling with English and then colonial legal and religious leaders, Williams found strength in reading the sacred text. Surely you heard the refrain of the 23rd Psalm weaving through his reflections. As he established Rhode Island and a Baptist congregation, Williams worked for religious tolerance, creating the first place within North America where persons of any or no religious background were welcome. The subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights would be indebted to Williams’ early advocacy for religious liberty.
When visiting the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, I saw Thomas Jefferson’s historic 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, assuring them of his likeminded desire to establish the separation of church and state. Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists were indebted to the witness of Roger Williams, the first person in America to speak of the need for such separation. In the 1630s, however, Williams was a pariah and a pest, a threat against the status quo.

In more modern times, we have Roger as a fine example of what a Baptist in America could be like.  Like Roger tromping off into the wilderness called “the unknown” toward his future, we present day Baptists who advocate for religious freedom and the liberty of conscience can also feel a bit “out there” in the wilderness. Nonetheless, we see what happens when the prophetic learns these words of hope and fills with the divine Spirit of God. Hopeful future births, even when all witness and wisdom alike say or fathom otherwise.

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